how to approach a poem
Here, The Muse Of Literature offers
a method, a practical example, and a few suggestions for how to get
the most from reading or hearing a poem.
About this feature
The aim of this feature is to provide a few pointers
to people who want to better understand and experience a poem when they
Why bother to analyze poetry?
The Muse Of Literature offers a few suggestions on how to get the most
from reading or hearing a poem.
A poem of substance is an expression of art. Where poetry is concerned,
art appreciation is partly the act of gaining insight into the qualities of
a poem and giving them their proper value; partly, too, art appreciation is
the act of gaining a clear perception of a poem's aesthetic qualities and
experiencing them as a totality.
After you analyze a poem, you know it for what it is. You clearly
understand its meaning and message; you see its beauty; you react more
keenly to its emotion and gain insight into its spiritual, intellectual, and
aesthetic properties. You appreciate it as a whole.
Benefits like these come from deconstructing and reconstructing a poem.
In other words, they come from analysis.
The Muse's approach consists of two elements: 1) a checklist, and
2) a procedure for approaching a poem with the aid of the checklist.
The checklist cites a few aspects of poetry to think about before, during, and after you read a
The checklist and procedure probably won't revolutionize your approach to reading poems but
they will give you a few things to do that will increase your enjoyment, appreciation, and insight
with only small cost of time and effort. Try them and you will discover the
value of approaching a poem with an analytical mind-set.
The Muse's pointers are not a method for analyzing poetry. If you want
to get more from the poems you read, perhaps you should consider exploring
a poetry analysis resource developed by a literary scholar or educator. Such
resources typically consume an entire book, school semester, or seminar; they are
much more robust than the approach The Muse offers here but they demand a
greater personal investment of time and energy.
If you see a future for yourself that includes poetry analysis, The Muse suggests that you investigate the poetic
analysis resources shown in the ETAF Recommends section, below on this page.
the checklist and procedure—how they work
The Muse's way of approaching poems consists of two parts: 1) a checklist, and
2) a procedure for reading a poem with the aid of the checklist.
See The Muse's checklist, below on this page. Every poem you will encounter can
be described by the aspects of poetry that are on this list; all poems
demonstrate every one of these aspects.
Each aspect on the checklist is followed by a few samples that
illustrate its nature. How do these samples help?
Take as an example the aspect of structure. The structure of a poem is its organization, arrangement, or
framework. Every poem has a structure and there are certain kinds of
poetic structures that are particularly well established in Literature. One
such structure is called the sonnet.
Any poem that follows the organization scheme for sonnets
is called a sonnet. Therefore, a sonnet is a kind of poem as well as poetic
structure. The sonnet appears on the checklist under the aspect of structure.
According to accepted literary practice, to be a sonnet a poem
must have the following structure:
All sonnets must have 14 lines and each line must be written in iambic pentameter.
In addition, its rhyme scheme must be one of the following: either 1)
three quatrains followed by a couplet (called the common English or
Shakespearean sonnet), or 2) an octave and a sestet (called the Italian or Petrarchan
sonnet). (A quatrain is a group of four
lines, usually with alternate rhymes. An octet is a group of eight lines;
a sestet is a group of six lines.) The rhyme scheme is considered part of
The samples under the aspects help by clarifying what the aspects mean.
To approach a poem in the manner The Muse suggests, it's not necessary
to be able to give a name to its every aspect, although naming a poem's
aspects helps. Nor
is it necessary to know every detail of every aspect of a poem, although
the more you know about the aspects of a poem, the more benefit you will
In The Muse's approach, it's not necessary to know the difference
between a Shakespearean and Petrarchan sonnet; but it is important to recognize the general nature of each of a poem's aspects. For
example, it is important to know that every poem has a structure and to be
able to deduce it for the poem you're reading; it's important to know that
every poem has rhyme and imagery and to be able to spot the rhymes and the
—Analyze Poems from These Points of View—
Type—a particular combination of theme
sound in different parts of a verse
Imagery—figures of speech
Period—literary era in which a poem written
Theme—the author’s intention or subject matter;
the unifying idea or motif
the Muse's procedure
The Muse suggests that you follow the procedure outlined below when you
approach a poem.
- First, read the poem straight through quickly to get acquainted with
it. Consider reading it aloud or listening to it on a recording.
- Next, read the poem again, this time slowly and carefully. (Remember
that the title is part of the poem.)
- After you finish reading the poem, take time to examine it:
- Check the poem against each aspect on The Muse's checklist below, line by line and
stanza by stanza.
- Paraphrase: restate the poem in your own
words, line by line
and stanza by stanza.
- Summarize everything you've discovered and experienced from the poem
as a whole: meaning, theme, how it affected you, author's intent, etc.
- Note any relevant comments or observations that may occur to you.
- Now, read the poem again all the way through with the aspects on the checklist in
mind but without referring to the list. Confirm the analysis you made in
- Next, completely forget about the poem's aspects and concentrate on
experiencing the poem as a whole. Read or listen to it to enjoy the experience.
Look for its
sounds, images, and ideas. Think about what it means and says as you read. Observe
how it affects you. Revel in its beauty.
- Finally, compare your first reading of the poem with your last. Note any
differences that may be due to the procedure.
on identifying Aspects of
Any book about understanding and analyzing poetry
can help you identify the aspects of a poem you are analyzing. For
suggestions, see the ETAF Recommends section on this page, below.
The Muse provides a glossary of literary terms which will
help you define many of the terms on the checklist.
how to approach a poem—A practical Example
Nothing can help clear fog from the mind like a practical example. The Muse Of
Literature has analyzed a poem with the aid of The Muse's Checklist and
Procedure to demonstrate how to apply The Muse's method for approaching
See an example of The Muse's method for approaching a poem based on A. E. Housman's well-known poem,
Loveliest of Trees.
First The Muse analyzes the poem; then you do.
approach a poem Now
Choose a poem you are familiar with and try reading it with the aid of
The Muse's procedure for approaching a poem. The Muse suggests that you
choose a short, simple poem to start. Notice whether reading a poem with the
aid of this approach results
in an improvement over your previous readings.
Choose a poem to approach now at
The Muse's feature called The Poetry Corner.
If you prefer
to analyze a poem that's not listed at this page, try searching the
Internet for one you like.
If you like approaching a poem in this way, try reading a few more short,
simple poems. Accustom yourself to The Muse's approach and become proficient
in it before you tackle complex, sophisticated, or lengthy poems.
explore other Approaches to poetry
The Muse invites you to compare The Muse's approach to poetry with that
- For an approach similar to that of The Muse called Types Fast Method,
see this document in Microsoft WORD format titled How to Approach a Poem
by S. Goddard:
- Looking for a quick and easy method for analyzing a poem? Try the
How to Analyze a Poem page at the enotes.com web site. It will show you
what to do in 10-easy steps (or so they say):
- Dr. Debora B. Schwartz of the English department at California
Polytechnic State University has devised an 11-point approach to poetry
called An Approach to Reading and Writing About Poems. See Dr.
Schwartz's approach at her web site now:
- Visit the Quiddity web site for Andrew Kern's short paper called An
Effective Approach To Reading a Poem:
- See the ETAF Recommends section on this page, below, for a book titled
Understanding Poetry: An Anthology For College Students by Cleanth
Brooks and Robert Penn Warren.
For a "look inside" experience, visit the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing page at the University of
Pennsylvania web site. There you'll find a page taken straight from the
Brooks and Warren book. This excerpt contains valuable reflections about the
nature of poetry, some analytical observations, and a slew of revealing
comments from the authors about how to approach and analyze poetry.
- The page called How to Read a Poem at the Poets.org web site
an excellent treatment of how to analyze poetry. It not only suggests
techniques for getting started with a poem; it gives you an appreciation
for the fact that there's more to analyzing a poem than uncovering its
aspects: there's a good deal of judgment and good sense.
- Visit this Poets.org page now
and you'll find some excellent insights:
more to explore
The Muse's checklist contains aspects of poetry that are examined at
greater length in other Muse Of Literature features. You may want to gain
additional insight by exploring these features:
- Explore literary forms at the feature called Literary Forms:
- Explore literary genres at the feature called Literary Genres:
- Explore literary forms at the feature called Literary Periods:
- Explore literary forms at the feature called Sounds Of poetry—About
Rhyme: click here.
Perrine's book, Sound and Sense, is a classic being kept up to
date by Thomas Arp and Greg Johnson. Pricey, but an invaluable resource for understanding poetry. Look for less
expensive versions at the same page.
How Does a Poem Mean, the title of Ciardi's and Williams' book, is
not the result of a grammatical error. The title suggests it's purpose: to
explain how to analyze a poem as a whole to discover its underlying meaning. Consistent
with The Muse's approach. Out of print but still available. One of the best.
Understanding Poetry is a standard in college-level survey courses
for English majors. Formal and expensive, as you
would expect from a text book, but authoritative. You can take a look inside this book: See the Compare Notes section on this page, above, for a link
that will take you to a web page where you can see a sample of the kind of
analyses it contains.
The Art of Poetry: How to Read a Poem, by Shira Wolosky, is
not yet a classic like the other books that The Muse recommends above, but
it's more recent and less expensive.
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